What is Dyslexia?
The term “learning disability” is a non-specific term that “relates to a heterogeneous group of dysfunctions that are expressed as significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of ability to pay attention, speak, read, write, or do mathematics.”
* Dyslexia is a specific dysfunction which typically manifests as difficulty with acquisition of reading and writing skills. Some investigators extend the definition of dyslexia to include difficulties with various learning skills and mathematics.
Based on international research and the testimony of Israeli students, it is possible to characterize the difficulties of dyslexic students of young children as belonging to five areas:
- Language difficulties – Weakness in vocabulary, difficulties in absorption of material presented quickly, difficulty simultaneously attending to lectures and note taking, difficulty in organizing a sequence of events or ideas, errors in composition and connecting words, difficulties in word retrieval, difficulty in pronouncing multi-syllabic words, difficulty in learning a foreign language, substantial gap between level of oral expression and written expression favoring the former.
- Reading difficulties – Decoding difficulties, reading comprehension difficulties even when decoding is competent, unusually slow reading, difficulty differentiating primary and secondary.
- Writing difficulties – Unclear handwriting, many spelling errors, difficulties in sentence construction, initial organization of writing assignment, difficulties in organization of sequence.
- Mathematics difficulties – Difficulty in understanding the language of mathematics, Only partial mastery of basic operations, difficulty in remembering formulae or sequences of mathematical operations, reversals of numbers and symbols, disturbances in directional orientation, difficulty in copying and story-problem reading.
- Difficulties in learning skills – Difficulty with organization of time, difficulty in staying on task, difficulty in integrating information from multiple sources, difficulty in memory and drill, technical difficulties in using printed and electronic references, difficulties in test situations despite mastery of material. (Ainat, p. 21-22)
It is possible to point to various research studies in several disciplines which investigate the primary cause of dyslexia. Some of the studies claim that dyslexia is a result of a neuropsychological disturbance. Others point to damage or dysfunction in the brain structure which generates a functional disability in a specific area of the brain responsible for the disability. Other investigators see the disability (structural-genetic? environmental-cultural?) in linguistic-cognitive functioning as the primary cause of dyslexia. It seems that there is no theory that explains and clarifies the essence of the disability in all of its manifestations.
Over the years, there has not been adequate attention given to the subject of dyslexia in the Israeli educational system. There has been no Israeli position on the definition and characteristics of dyslexia or the type of care appropriate for dyslexics. In contrast, the educational systems in western countries including the United States, understood the importance of a system-wide approach to dyslexia. In 1975 the United States passed legislation regarding the assessment and remediation of learning disabilities. Considerable research was done at that time to deepen understanding of the causes and results of the disability.
In light of the American law and various research studies in learning disabilities in general and dyslexia in particular, the Israeli educational reviews were updated as well. Nevertheless, as Amala Ainat, expert in assessment and remediation of learning disabilities, noted: “Even the last review on this subject (dated September 1996) added more confusion and hesitation regarding the disability. The main focus of the review was, at the level of principle, the formal need for a differentiating diagnosis, and at the concrete level, to limit the requests for accommodations in testing and their approval. (Ainat p. 18)
Unfortunately, the care of children with dyslexia is totally unsatisfactory. Even worse, many so called experts maintain that one has to accept the limitations of the disability since they will never go away, never change, and never improve with the passage of time. This opinion is absolutely incompatible with my philosophy, my personal experience with overcoming dyslexia, and the great professional experience I acquired as a result of the treatment of my dyslexia. I am a devoted follower of the outlook that it is possible to find a solution for this condition.
My philosophy is reflected in the pioneering work of Dr. G.N. Getman O.D. and his successor, Dr. Stanley Abelman O.D. who helped me tremendously and who invested much time and energy in order to provide a fundamental solution for their patients’ problems. Dr. Getman expounded the theory of “sight and vision” that focuses on the centrality of vision in the cognitive development of the child. Although Dr. Getman developed his theory in the 60s, it remains an innovative approach to assessment and treatment of learning difficulties in general and dyslexia in particular. Dr. Abelman who began his career working together with Dr. Getman, developed his methodology for application of his teacher’s multidisciplinary theory.
Professor Reuven Feuerstein provides additional theoretical support for my positive outlook on the likelihood of overcoming dyslexia. He promotes his theory of “Structural Cognitive Modifiability” which asserts the potential of all people to change their cognitive structure in the presence of ideal conditions. Professor Feuerstein states in his book: The Person as a Changing Entity that “the person is capable of acquiring for himself not only quantities of information or skills, but even new cognitive structures that through which there are opened before him areas that were not included previously in his repertoire of knowledge and skills… This special ability of the human to change himself exists as an option… and in order to utilize this option it is necessary to invest effort and skill. Nevertheless the option exists for the person as he is, no matter what obstacles are in the path of its utilization. (p.13-14)”
Professor Feuerstein maintains that “mediated learning takes place when between the learner and the world, there is placed a person with knowledge, experience, and intention who mediates to the learner the world, transforms it to be more understood, and fills it with meaning (p. 29)” With the high quality intervention of a human mediator, an essential change takes place: “A person who was considered unable to learn, incapable of speaking, reading, identifying objects or using his intellect, acquires these abilities step by step and transforms to be a capable human being (p. 80)”
*In this brief introduction I referred to the important book by Amala Ainat, A Key to a Locked Door (United Kibutz Publication, 2000, p. 16-22)